In search of justice in Argentina

March 15, 2007

Two large undercover security guards arrive first in a separate car to survey the parking garage. They radio "all clear" back to the second car, carrying Patricia Isasa and her escort. The first guards then scout out the route to the restaurant and stake out her table according to lowest security risk.

"We are custodians of the architect Patricia Isasa", they say to the concierge flashing their badge, "she will be eating here this evening". Isasa arrives shortly thereafter, escorted by at least one more bodyguard. Her return home is similar to her arrival and includes a security check underneath her car to ensure that no bomb has been placed while she ate.

Isasa's house is under constant surveillance, her transportation and destinations chosen carefully. Her emails and phone calls are studied, and she receives a weekly list of those who called. "My life is crazy", Isasa admits.

Isasa — who was disappeared, tortured and held prisoner for nearly two-and-a-half years during Argentina's 1976-83 military dictatorship — is the lead witness in a trial, set to begin this year, that could bring nine influential Argentines to justice for torture, complicity, or even genocide. She is one of approximately 2000 witnesses across the country that could testify on the crimes committed during the dictatorship, but one of only a handful protected under the Argentine Witness Protection Program by such high-level security.

Isasa's life has changed dramatically since Argentina finally lifted the amnesty for crimes committed under the dictatorship and began to try the perpetrators last year. Last September, she fled to the US after a series of death threats and the disappearance of the lead witnesses in a landmark trial that landed known torturer and former police commissioner, Miguel Osvaldo Etchecolatz, 77, a life sentence for genocide. Etchecolatz is the second person to be convicted so far — one of 900 former officers and collaborators from the dictatorship that could reportedly face trial.

But the sentences have not been without their cost. In his final remarks, Etchecolatz called himself a "political prisoner" and declared: "This tribunal is not condemning me, you are condemning yourselves."

The next day, the lead witness, Jorge Julio Lopez — whose testimony was instrumental in Etchecolatz's conviction — disappeared. His body, like tens of thousands killed during the military dictatorship, has yet to be found.

On September 19, the day after Lopez's disappearance, Isasa received suspicious calls at two former residences (and one home where the telephone line was registered under her name, but where she had never lived) from someone interested in meeting with her. "When will Patricia return? I have information for her", they said.

Isasa did not answer. The calls persisted. Less than a week later, the federal judge in charge of Isasa's trial, Reynaldo Rodriguez, received a threatening letter identical to one received by the main judge on the Etchecolatz trial and sent from the same location. Isasa, the lead witness in her case and the only one whose testimony can incriminate all of those on trial, was immediately placed in the Argentine Witness Protection Program.

"You are the next in line", they told her. Just under three weeks later she was on a plane to the United States, afraid for her life.

The situation remained tense. In late November, death threats were left for the first time on her answering machine at her home in Buenos Aires on the day she was set to return to the country. In December, another witness, Luis Gerez, 51, disappeared for two days before a plea by President Nestor Kirchner apparently forced his release.

Isasa returned to Buenos Aires in January to press for the trial, which has already languished for more than two years, to go ahead. She feared that without her presence it might be delayed further.

"It's my commitment … I need to find justice", she told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman in a November 16 interview when asked why she was returning. Isasa's trial is the culmination of over 10 years of personal investigation by the Argentine architect. She has amassed 4000 pages of documents that she says prove the guilt of her torturers.

As a result, the defendants in Isasa's case are currently awaiting trial behind bars or under house arrest, and Isasa received the good news at the beginning of last month, that because of the sensitivity of the case, Rodriquez has extended their incarceration for at least a year longer. Rodriguez assured Isasa that her case is the second in line and that it will go to trial before July and be completed by the end of the year.

But it's not that easy. Isasa's torturers are high profile, including former federal judge Victor Hermes Brusa; former mayor of San Jose del Rincon, Mario Jose Facino; and the former secretary of security for the province of Santa Fe, Nicolas Correa.

Isasa has plans to return to Santa Fe (her hometown and location of both of her kidnappings, torture and detention) to "declare" against her torturers, denounce the slow speed of the trial, and reveal new information, including another name to add to the current nine defendants.

Although she will take precautions, she is afraid. She is not naive about the power of her torturers in this region even if they are currently behind bars. As a result, Isasa has plans to meet soon with Argentina's secretary of human rights, Dr Eduardo Luis Duhalde, to talk about her security in Santa Fe and the realities of trying Brusa in the district where he has held so much power.

"They have a lot of power. A lot of money", Isasa says.

In Santa Fe, Isasa says that the incessant broken windows in her father's bedroom finally convinced him to install a grate to block the rocks. "He thinks they are stones from the neighbourhood kids", Isasa said recently. Isasa's father has not received any verbal threats and Isasa doesn't believe he will.

"They don't want to threaten this time", she explains matter-of-factly. "They want to kidnap me, to kill me."

"I'm the only witness [who] accuses all nine repressors. In other words, kill me and there almost wouldn't be a trial … but what I want to do is declare so that even if they kill me I have my declaration opened, so that it would be unnecessary to kill me in order to block the trial. It's a way of self-protecting me", she said recently in an email to friends.

Isasa is also relying on national and international solidarity and her relatively high profile to promote her case and her safety. El Cerco (Cuatro Cabezas, 2006), a documentary on her trial, was aired late last April on Argentine television before an audience of millions, thrusting Isasa into temporary stardom.

For now, however, Isasa's real safety is in the hands of Argentina's "finest", who keep their vigilant eye on the architect. Ironically, however, this is the same police force that only 30 years ago was waging a silent war on Argentina's citizens that led to the assassination and disappearance of 30,000 people.

Nevertheless, Isasa believes she is safer in the program than out of it. But this irony has led many witnesses, such as Lopez and Gerez, to decline protection from the Argentine government because of fears that it may still have connections to their former oppressors.

Bodyguards and security precautions may be a nuisance, but for now Isasa doesn't see any way around it.

"That's life", she says.

[Michael Fox is a freelance journalist, reporter and translator based in South America. Abridged from]

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